Holbrook Town Meeting rejected what would have been the town’s first charter by a margin of more than 2 to 1 Wednesday after opponents warned that the document would invest too much authority in a town manager.
“You’re taking the will of the majority” and giving it to one person “who may have a political agenda,” Town Clerk Jeanmarie Tarara told voters.
The charter — developed by a committee over a period of more than four years after consulting with advisers from the University of Massachusetts Boston, administrators from similar-size communities, and others — would have eliminated the town administrator in favor of a strong town manager with broader responsibility for appointing and supervising employees.
Supporters believe the new model would make government more organized and ensure that departments are working in concert toward the goals of the town. But detractors characterized the system as a “one-man show” similar to a mayoral form of government.
Voter sentiment appeared closely divided when a related amendment received a tie vote, 69 to 69, but the article failed by a vote of 89 to 36.
Kevin Costa, chairman of the Town Government Study Committee, said the committee would have to decide how to respond. It could revise the proposal and bring it to a spring Town Meeting, but Costa said he was not sure the committee would take that route. “I have no idea at this point,” he said.
He attributed the defeat to a lack of communication, saying the committee must not have done a sufficient job communicating the value of the charter to the public. He also blamed the defeat on a resistance to change. “It’s shock,” he said.
Under the proposed charter, the town clerk and treasurer-collector, who are elected under the present system, would be appointed by the town manager. The manager would appoint virtually all employees, except for those in the schools and housing authority.
The proposed charter would also scrap elections for two boards, the Planning Board and the Board of Assessors, giving appointing authority to the Board of Selectmen.
Wayne Crandlemere, chairman of the Planning Board, argued that the board needs a level of independence that can only be guaranteed by elections.
Timothy Gordon, chairman of the Board of Selectmen, said that while having a charter is extremely important, he has numerous objections to the proposed document. Although the selectmen would hire the town manager, they would only select from a small pool of candidates supplied by a screening committee, he said.
Gordon also objected to delaying elections from April to June, because officers would be elected after Town Meeting. That could cause grandstanding at Town Meeting and would mean that a new Board of Selectmen would be charged with executing a budget created by the previous board, he said.
He and other opponents expressed dismay at a provision that forces Town Meeting members to resign if they do not attend more than one-third of Town Meetings in a calendar year. Members of Holbrook’s representative Town Meeting are hard enough to recruit without throwing people out, they said. Others, however, said Town Meeting members with poor attendance should be replaced.
Further objections involved the unknown cost of salaries for new professional staff, such as a human resources director, required under the charter. But another new position, that of finance director, would double as accountant or treasurer-collector and not require an additional employee, Costa said.
The proposed charter would also declare the town manager to be both the chief administrative officer and the chief financial officer for the town, duties that opponents said should be separated.
Supporters, however, described the proposal as a way to help professionalize the staff and make government more efficient.
Selectman Matthew Moore said that he hears a lot of negativity about town government and that the charter is “a golden opportunity” for change. To continue doing the same things and expect a different result would be insanity, he said.
Costa told voters that comparable towns have enjoyed success with similar government structures.
Asked for examples after the meeting, he cited Abington, Medway, and West Bridgewater.
If approved at a future Town Meeting, a charter would need approval by the state and by a townwide ballot to become law.
Jennette Barnes can be reached at email@example.com.